Daša Drndić is a very well-known and appreciated Croatian novelist, playwright and literary critic, among other occupations, born in Zagreb in 1946. She studied Philology at Belgrade, then she spent some years teaching in Canada and gained an MA in Theater and Communication as part of the Fulbright Programme. She’s a member of the Croatian Writers Society and PEN Croatia and, in the present, she lives in Rijeka, Croatia.
Her books – I mention just a few: The Road to Saturday (1982), Leica format (2003), A Feminist Manuscript or a Political Parable: The Plays of Lillian Hellman (2006), Sonnenschein, (2007), April in Berlin (2009) – have been translated in ten languages – English, French, Polish, Hungarian, Slovene, Dutch, Italian, Slovak, Finnish and Macedonian. I hope that we’ll enjoy soon enough a Romanian translation.
I met Daša Drndić at Timișoara, at the International Literature Festival, at the end of October. I consider myself lucky for having the opportunity to talk with her, a very open, warm and active person and, from the little bits of fragments that I read, also a very good writer. This interview with Daša Drndić can function, if you want, as an appetizer for her writings, as a savoring before reading her books or as a first meeting with her literature.
We spoke about the Croatian literary scene, language and identity, political regimes and political messages through literature, translations, some of her books – April in Berlin, Doppelganger, Trieste and Belladonna -, documentary fiction concept, her creative process and much more.
Pentru versiunea în limba română, click aici.
How is it the literary scene in Croatia?
The literary scene in Croatia is dynamic. What is very good is that there is a number of relatively young emerging writers that are being recognized officially by the critics, so it’s promising. In my opinion, it is also good that, someway, the contacts have been renewed among these younger writers in Croatia and the writers in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Slovenia and Macedonia are a little bit problematic due to the differences in language. But the literary scene is getting more and more vivid and dynamic because there are these residentship where people are coming from all parts of former Yugoslavia, there are these festivals, etc.
Are you for the first time in Romania? I noticed that you are very interested in the language, you are constantly asking what does that word mean and so on.
Yes, this is my first time in Romania. And language is one of my passions because language is what unites us, right? Through language you get to people. So how could we communicate without language? Besides, language is, more or less, what a writer has. A writer doesn’t need a homeland, he or she needs a roof, something to eat, but he or she cannot work without language. In some regimes, especially in authoritarian regimes, language is a danger. So, in undemocratic regimes, the power tries to modify the language, either to purify it or promote it as a part of national identity – but it is not a national identity, it is a personal identity, of every human being. It is very dangerous to manipulate, to touch language, because it will always win, language is like an eel, it will find its way and it will play tricks if you try to constrain it. Language has to be left to its speaker. Of course there is a standard in every language, there is an educated language, but you can play with language, you can have fun with it. And language brings us together. That’s why I’m so much interested in language.
It’s curious that you put in the same sentence language and identity. I remember that you previously said that identity is a construct.
It is a construct. But identity is something that we are, not national songs, these don’t really belong to us. For example, people tend to say: „We won this soccer game”. It’s not true, we didn’t win that, the players won the soccer game. This is one’s identification with a whole soccer team, which is stupid. Or „our music” , it is not „ours”, it’s the music of the people who composed or performed it. I cannot agree with this tendency to grab something that is not ours. What is ours is the language that we use. Educated or uneducated people, everybody uses the language in his or her own way. Nobody speaks the same way: the tonality, the accents, the syntax, the construction, the melody of language, it belongs to every person, you know? You cannot justify grabbing something that is not yours.
Daša Drndić (the second person from left to right) at the International Literature Festival in Timișoara
Because we, the Romanian readers, haven’t had the opportunity to read you in translation, I would ask you to tell us about three of your books, the ones that you consider the best. I know that what I’m asking is a little bit hard, all of your books are important, but I want you to name three as a recommendation for us.
Sonnenschein (2007), in English Trieste (2012), is the most translated of my books. I don’t know if it’s the best. And, honestly, I really don’t care which is considered the best. All the books that I’ve written I did so under different circumstances, ideas, and yet you can see that there is some kind of repetition. You know, it is believed that every writer actually writes the same book again and again, in different form. So I really couldn’t say three.
Oh, there is one little book (we laugh). Yes, there is one little book that I love and nobody likes it. Well, let’s say that not many people like it. I don’t know why. Of course, it hasn’t been translated. There were good critiques of it, but it is, probably, a disturbing book. It’s called Doppelganger and it’s about two old people who meet on New Year’s Eve. Both are incontinent, they have diapers and, when the New Year’s Eve ends, they have manual sex through these diapers. But, in the background, you have the stories – one was a naval army officer from the Yugoslavian army and the woman was a Jew with some Austrian descendants and she came to live to Croatia – well, the country isn’t specified. While they’re meeting each other, you have, in the background, this police dossier story. It ends with their suicide. It’s grotesque, in a way. They told me it’s reminiscent of Beckett’s characters. These people, the police, the sex, it was all, probably, repulsive for readers. But it’s my favorite, I would really like to push it outside Croatia. Maybe just because not many people like it, as when you have a disabled child, I don’t know.
O.k. You said two, Trieste and Doppelganger. Which is the third one?
Let’s say Belladonna.
Well, if you want to compare books with children, once you’ve raised them, you have to let them go, right? So, I let my books go and they have to find their place in the world. They’re still mine, I have the right to say what I want or don’t want to be done with them, but, still, they are the property of the readers now, so I cannot interfere anymore.
Trieste, the English translation of Sonnenschein
Editor, producer, playwright, English teacher, novelist, poet, etc.
Yes, and a mother!
True. These are just a few of your occupations. What’s the dearest one and why?
Writing. It’s the most difficult and the most rewarding to me, personally.
And the one that you didn’t like?
I hated teaching at the university because I don’t like telling people what to do.
I got my hands on one of your books, Trieste (2012), and I noticed it was translated in English by Ellen Elias-Bursac. I was wondering then why didn’t you translate it yourself?
For me, it’s a waste of time. When I was younger, I did literary translations. It was exhausting. I want to write, not waste time with translations. And, besides, I’m here for the English translations, my English is good enough, I know my rhythm, so, even when the translation is very good, I have comments to make and I can improve it.
It’s excellent if the translator is, himself or herself, a writer or a very experienced translator who knows how to play with rhythm – because rhythm is very important to me, I choose very carefully my words, I cannot sing, but I have this inner song when I’m writing.
You’re not writing to entertain people – you clearly stated it several times, including here, at the International Literature Festival in Timișoara…
Well, but masochism can also be entertaining, you know? (we laugh)
If my reader is ready to be treated not so nicely, then it’s good. There are people who enjoy „ugly books”. They have nothing against disturbing books. Of course that, afterwards, they go for a walk, a piece of easy literature to read or something else. I don’t see anything wrong with this.
… neither do I. So, you’ve said that you write „to punch readers in their stomach”. Who was the first writer to do so with you, as a reader?
I cannot say the first writer. There are a lot of writers who did that with me, as a reader, beginning with Kafka, Thomas Bernhard or even Herta Muller, Elfriede Jelinek and so on. There are many, many writers like this.
At the International Literature Festival in Timișoara you read, among other fragments, one piece from April at Berlin. The fragment that you chose was about the Romanian writer Nora Iuga. Is the whole book revolving around her?
No. It’s a combination. I spent a month in Berlin. There are little stories about the people I’ve met. Berlin is a very inspiring city, so I’ve also included some of my reflections about the city, about East and West Berlin, etc. I don’t write books with very strict plots. My books are not linear, but fragmented. April in Berlin is really full of little fragments, situated, of course, in Berlin, but the mind can travel anywhere, so I moved in time and space.
In what circumstances did you meet Nora Iuga?
We were together in this literary house for writers and translators in Berlin.
A little fragment in which Daša Drndić is reading, at the International Literature Festival in Timișoara, in Croatian, from April at Berlin.
Can you explain to us what is it the „documentary fiction”? This is, if I’m not mistaken, the form that you use in Trieste.
My publisher gave this subtitle – documentary novel – to the book. I had nothing to do with this and it caused quite a lot of confusion. What I do is the fact that I use fiction and faction – transcripts, photographs, existing materials, documents and I twist them, I invent things, I use fiction. So it’s a combination of existing facts with invented events. Sometimes, the readers are so surprised that they don’t know anymore what is fiction and what is faction. It gives me a little bit of satisfaction, because I don’t think it’s important if it works, if it becomes a piece of literature. I enjoy myself twisting these realities, mixing them in some kind of fiction.
Your books are more than literature, from my point of view. In Trieste, you use documents from archives, photographs, letters, recordings, that very big list of names, etc.
Well, it gives some sort of credibility to the text. What I don’t like in literature is construction. When I feel that a writer is inventing everything, I don’t believe him or her. Only if he is a very good liar and constructs the story so that the reader believes it happened – and there are methods of doing this because, you know, writing is a trade, not talent; of course, you have to have a feeling for it, but there are rules. The more you write, the more you learn what works well and what doesn’t. For example, I have a little green light in me that says to me if it’s o.k what I’m doing and a little red light that says „Stop, stop, not good”. So a lot of writing is practice.
I’m a slow writer and this activity consumes me a lot. I don’t write easily.
What does it mean that you don’t write easily?
For example, I can sit seven, nine, ten hours and write one page and I’m happy. Sometimes I write two or three pages, then it’s wonderful! I don’t write, write and write and then clean the text, I’m quite alert when I write and the page that I write, even after a whole day of work, stays. It’s exhausting and frustrating, yes, that after ten hours you have just one page.
Daša Drndić at the International Literature Festival in Timișoara – photo credit: Anca Buzatu
Do you send political messages in your works?
Yes, of course, subversive or, sometimes, even directly. Like in Belladonna – I read a fragment from it here, at the festival, which was about old age.
I send political messaged especially if I want to speak about nationalism, the abuse of human rights, regimes, etc. Sometimes, I write about it even in essays, very straightforward. I don’t know if they have an impact on somebody or if they can change something, but it makes me feel better because I have my say. Now, the press is open, so I can write anytime on some blogs or portals, for example, and it is published, but it hasn’t been like that all the time. Nowadays I’m free to say whatever I want, but the more freedom I have, the less I use it.
I don’t remember who said this, but, at some point, I heard a writer telling some people that, nowadays, the writers aren’t so attentive, so preoccupied with the language as they were in the past, under totalitarian regimes, precisely because they are free to say anything now, they are not stopped by any censorship. He implied that the young writers aren’t as creative as the other writers were then. So it was, in a way, better in those periods. Do you agree?
No, I don’t. Democracy doesn’t really exist anywhere. There are forms of a little bit more or a little bit less democracy, but it doesn’t exist in pure form. Especially in capitalism. So, there’s always something that you can fight against and talk about. Take the United States as an example, there are so many things that you can discuss about! You mustn’t be quiet. Of course you can be criticized by those in power, but you have to find a way to speak about the things that are not right, to fight for your and the others rights.
In Romania – and not only – there is a very often addressed question at the end of an interview. That is „What piece of advice would you give to someone that wants to write?”. I want you to tell us something that you won’t recommend a young writer to do.
The most important thing is that they won’t read only the things that they write. It’s very sad to do that. And it’s vital for them to read a lot, especially the books that the others wrote.
Photo credit for the main picture